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The license for Central Maine Power's transmission project has been suspended

Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
AP file
Heavy machinery is used to cut trees to widen an existing Central Maine Power power line corridor to make way for new utility poles, April 26, 2021, near Bingham, Maine.

Maine's top environmental regulator on Tuesday evening suspended Central Maine Power's permit for its controversial transmission corridor through Maine's western woods.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Melanie Loyzim says the permit is suspended and construction barred until and unless a court orders otherwise.

"So long as the License is suspended, all construction must stop. So long as the License is suspended, the associated processing of any associated condition compliance applications will be tolled," Loyzim wrote.

The New England Energy Connect, as the new corridor through western Maine is called, would bring hydroelectricity from Canada into the regional grid in order to serve a contract with Massachusetts utilities.

Loyzim wrote that she is giving deference to Maine residents' decisive vote on Nov. 2 for a ballot item that aims to kill the 145-mile corridor and expands the Legislature's authority over such projects.

"When the people of Maine exercise their legislative power through a citizen initiative, there is a general presumption of constitutional validity," she wrote. "I will treat the statutory amendments approved by the Referendum as a valid bar to the Project in the Upper Kennebec Region."

Tom Saviello, a former Wilton lawmaker who has been a leader in an opposition group, "Say No to the NECEC," called the decision "an extra nail in the coffin of this project."

"Can I say it's a death nail? No. Because they will go to the courts and you know, courts are going to rule," he said. "I don't know what's the court's going to do."

Saviello, who has been flirting with a run for governor, praised Loyzim and her boss, Gov. Janet Mills, who has been a supporter of the project. He suggested that recent news that CMP had yet to secure easements for 40,000 acres of land it's supposed to acquire to compensate for habitat loss from the corridor may have tipped the balance.

In a press statement, CMP's top executive on the project, Thorn Dickinson, said the company remained committed to the project and cited its as-yet-unrealized commitment to conserve those 40,000 acres. He added that he was confident that CMP's attempt to overturn the referendum in state court would succeed.

"We look forward to next month’s hearing in the Maine Business Court where we will present our arguments that the initiative is unconstitutional and cannot be lawfully applied to stop this vital project,” he said.

Administration officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. In her decision, Loyzim found that the referendum's approval made it unlikely the project would be able to achieve its reason for being — delivering power. That makes its environmental impacts, she ruled, unreasonable.

And she used forceful language to describe her view of what would happen if she did not take action.

"To not suspend the license would allow: continued construction in the region where such construction will shortly be banned; continued construction of other Project segments without a reasonable expectation that those segments will ever be part of an alternative route and energized to fulfill the original purpose of the Project; and construction of a type of project that shortly will not be authorized for lack of having received 2/3 approval of both houses of the Legislature," she wrote.

In addition to stopping the project, Loyzim is also requiring the stabilization of any disturbed soils.

The fight over the referendum was the most expensive in Maine’s history, with a total of more than $70 million spent on the campaigns. CMP and its power supplier, Hydro-Quebec, spent the most. But they were nearly matched by deep-pocketed fossil fuel companies that stand to lose money if the project goes through.

The project still faces several other court challenges.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.